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Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Tweety's Revenge

Bird flu is in the news here in India. There has been an outbreak in Maharashtra state (to the north of me), beginning in swans, and a lot of culling has occurred. One can only hope it will be effective, as not everyone seems convinced of the need to cull. I read in the Hindu that people have been caught smuggling poultry (in one case, ducklings) into neighboring states, despite bans on the practice.

Humans seem, as a species, to be suicidal sometimes. Conservatives would laud this as an example of the invisible hand of the market at work, so it must be for the best, but I suspect the invisible hand is going to smite us for our collective stupidity.

Last week, here, in Vellore, chicken disappeared from the restaurants--they were afraid to serve it. Indian Railways had stopped serving chicken and eggs, but has restarted, as long as only well cooked versions are served. Well cooked chicken and eggs are perfectly safe to consume.

Because of fear and misunderstanding, though, the price of chicken has fallen dramatically at the market. My friends are stocking up, and we've been eating lots of tasty chicken dishes lately.

The latest bird flu news is not so good mammals. From Effect Measure, a blog and great (if scary and depressing) source of information about bird flu and other subjects epidemiological (Note that H5N1 is what is commonly referred to as "bird flu"):
European mammals, like its birds, are now on the chopping block. Not all mammals. Yet. But at least domestic cats. A laboratory has confirmed H5N1 infection in a cat found dead on the same island in northern Germany where 100 birds were found infected last week. German officials have ordered cats found within 200 yards of the area where the dead cat was discovered to be killed.

This is not the first time cats have been found to host the virus, although it is the first non-bird species infected in Europe. Big cats in a Thai zoo fed infected chicken were sickened and some died and three housecats in Bangkok died from the disease in 2004.
Perhaps more interesting is this recent research:
In the Netherlands Thijs Kuiken and his collaborators have published two papers on experimental cat infections with H5N1.....The cats became very sick and were able to pass the disease on to other cats housed with them. Cats are not usually made ill by influenza virus, and Kuiken's attempts to make them sick with the H3N2 virus currently circulating in human populations (seasonal influenza) did not succeed. Thus the H5N1 isolated from humans was uniquely dangerous for the housecats.
So, in short, pussy cats are immune to regular "people" flu virus, but susceptible to bird flu virus.

Further research by Kuiken:
Three cats were infected via direct inoculation of virus into the cat windpipe (trachea), three were fed virus-infected chicks and two cats were put into the same enclosure as the first group to see if they would catch the virus. All eight cats became infected. Especially troubling about this study was the cats became systemically infected with the virus, with viral replication both in and outside the respiratory tract.
It would follow that pussy cats that kill and consume wild birds infected with bird flu, could be come ill and die, as the German cat did. And, that they could infect their pussy cat friends. But, it is also true that, because humans in the West (excepting those of us with allergies) often live inclose proximity with cats, it is completely possible that they could be the vector by which bird flu is transmitted to humans.

What to do? Kill all cats?

Well, not quite yet. But they should be kept indoors, and away from wild birds.

And you may wish to consider wearing a hazmat suit when petting them......

As Sylvester would say, "Sufferin' Succotash!"


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